_George Steiner: Remembrancer
Dr. Catherine Chatterley
Times of Israel, Feb. 4, 2020George Steiner died on Monday, February 3, 2020 at the age of 90.In past years, he was recognized internationally as a leading critic of Western culture, who engaged in a continuous commentary on the nature and meaning of the humanities. Steiner’s fluency in German, French, English, Italian, and Spanish, as well as Greek and Latin, combined with his voracious appetite for reading, allowed him the unique opportunity to master the literary, philosophic, and aesthetic canons of Western civilization. This deep level of polyglot learning was Steiner’s most obvious strength and one that set him apart from his readers and his contemporaries. As a
comparatist of literature and
culture he was thought to have few living rivals; his virtuosity as a teacher was well known. Steiner’s renowned pedagogical ability was displayed in hundreds of book review essays published over a span of forty years in The New Yorker, The Times Literary Supplement (TLS), and The Guardian. Steiner’s reviews first introduced English-speaking readers in North America and Great Britain to the major works of prominent continental writers and thinkers like Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Georg Lukács, Theodor Adorno, Marcel Proust, among many others.
Steiner saw himself not simply as a pedagogue but as a translator of texts and ideas, a messenger carrying knowledge across the tightly patrolled borders of language, nationality, and academic specialization. He published twenty-seven books, including a memoir, six essay collections, three collections of short fiction, two books of verse translation, a novel and a book of poetry, as well as several interviews, symposia, and book introductions. This great range in genre is matched only by the variety of subjects Steiner pursued over the years. He was perhaps best known publicly for his “Hitler novel,” The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H., but was recognized for his masterwork on the subject of translation, entitled After Babel, and for producing an excellent introduction to the work of Martin Heidegger. His work on tragedy, especially The Death of Tragedy, was required reading in many literature courses, and scholars of both literature and religion embraced the debate found in Real Presences, his discussion of post-Derridean hermeneutics.
Perhaps less noticed, but equally powerful, was Steiner’s writing on the nature and meaning of the Holocaust as a product of Western culture. Having escaped the Nazi onslaught as a child, Steiner vowed as a young intellectual to become a remembrancer. He argued relentlessly that we come after the Holocaust, and, as such, are morally obligated to work toward an understanding of this tragedy at the heart of Western culture. There can be no doubt that Steiner’s experience as a European Jew during the twentieth century determined his dominant intellectual concerns, particularly his interest in the effects of the Holocaust upon language and culture, the nature and meaning of the humanities, and the relations between Jews and non-Jews in Western culture. … [To read the full article and listen to a video of George Steiner speaking on the humanities, click the following LINK – Ed.]
Dr. Catherine Chatterley is a CIJR Fellow
The Seriousness of George Steiner
The New Yorker, Feb. 5, 2020
The word “awesome” is most easily used by adolescents these days, but the range of learning that the critic and novelist George Steiner possessed was awesome in the old-fashioned, grown-up sense: truly, genuinely awe-inspiring. Steiner, who died on Monday, at the age of ninety, knew modern languages, ancient languages, classical literature, and modern literature. He had memorized the rhymes of Racine and he could elucidate the puns in Joyce and he could tell you why both were, in his thorny but not cheaply won view, superior to the prolixities of Shakespeare. He was what many people call a human encyclopedia—not in the American sense, a blank vault of facts, but in the French Enlightenment one: a critical repository of significant knowledge. His long book reviews for this magazine, written over thirty years, from 1966 to 1997, were dotted with allusions of the kind that a naturally horizontal thinker couldn’t help but include. But they were never imposed or forced—his mind truly, on its way to Borges, passed through Sophocles and stopped for a moment to take in the view at Heidegger. Steiner was a lifelong traveller of those routes. “Pretentious,” though a word journalists sometimes used to describe him, was the last thing he ever was. He was never pretending. He was a humanities faculty in himself, an academy of one.
And how many and how wide his subjects were: Lévi-Strauss, Cellini, Bernhard, Chardin, Mandelstam, Kafka, Cardinal Newman, Verdi, Gogol, Borges, Brecht, Wittgenstein, Montale, Liszt, Koestler, the linguistics of Noam Chomsky, and the connoisseurship (and craven Stalinism) of Anthony Blunt. (And that’s mostly one collection.) He was not, to be sure, a High and Low guy; he did not cheerfully follow up his essay on Levi-Strauss’s conception of the raw and the cooked with another essay filled with recipes on how to cook the raw. But that was not the moral manner of his generation; born in 1929, he was of the High and Higher and ever Higher kind, the kind who passionately believed, however fragile the belief might seem, in the power of serious art to redeem life.
Though not, to be sure, to redeem the world. Steiner’s seriousness was significantly disrupted by the Holocaust, which he understood to be the central event of modern times. (His family had fled Vienna shortly before the worst began.) It was part of the genuine, and not merely patrician, seriousness of his view to see the war years as a fundamental rupture not just in history but in our faith in culture: educated people did those things to other educated people. It was not ignorant armies clashing by night that shivered George Steiner’s soul; it was intelligent Germans who listened to Schubert murdering educated Jews who had trusted in Goethe, and by the train load. This recognition of the limits of culture to change the world was the limiting condition on his love of literature, and it was what gave that love a darker and more tragic cast than any mere proselytizing for “great books” could supply. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
George Steiner, The Prophet of Progressive Anti-Semitism
Tablet, Apr. 23, 2019
In the 1970 T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures delivered at Yale, the literary critic George Steiner offered a compelling explanation for the persistence of anti-Semitism: The Jews suffered for millennia as retribution for introducing the “Ideal” into Western culture. With its idealism and ethical imperatives, the revelation at Sinai “tore up the human psyche by its ancient roots,” depriving its inheritors of not just the material God and the image, but also “natural consciousness,” and “instinctual polytheistic needs.” Jews, the original Puritans, rejected the satisfaction of both the body and the image, for the purity and ascetic life dictated by the divine Word. From this perspective, Judaism represents the earliest celebration of the absolute, the West’s punishing superego, demanding idealism and self-denial, which was later incarnated in primitive Christianity and Messianic socialism, also founded by Jews, Jesus, and Karl Marx, in whose visions the Ideal persists “with terrible tactless force.” By Steiner’s lights, Hitler’s “jibe” that the Jews “invented consciousness” explains the tenacity of Western hatred of the Jews.
Western hatred of the Jews thus begins with anxiety about Jewish claims to exceptionalism. There can only be one bearer of the ideal: The city on the Hill is not Jerusalem, but Rome, later London, and even later still, Boston. In this form of anti-Semitism, which Steiner both described and in some ways endorsed, Jews are loathed because they represent a reminder of their antecedent claim to the Ideal—a claim that causes such anxiety that it must be extirpated. Non-Jewish messianic movements reject the notion of Jewish exceptionalism, because they are the exceptional ones. The continued existence of the Jews, and the resurgence of Israel, are troubling reminders that the Jews were first to be singled out as God’s “chosen people.”
Steiner’s writings on the State of Israel provide an early primer on the dynamics of the specific form of secular anti-Semitism that has captivated so many progressives in academia and among the rank and file of the British Labour Party, as well as, increasingly, among American progressives. For Steiner, nationalism is a “madness,” as is the “vulgar mystique of flag and anthem.” But it is Israel’s “barbed wire and watch-towers of national dogma” that represent a “rhetoric of self-deception as desperate as any contrived in the history of nationalism.” For Steiner, and in this, contemporary progressives follow him, Israel must bear all the sins of the nation-state. The Greek dramatist Aeschylus in his celebration of Athens—the Oresteia—avows that the city-state is founded on blood: For contemporary progressives, as for Steiner, only Israel, the nation-state ne plus ultra, has blood on its hands. …. [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
You Really Need To Read This Terrific Interview With George Steiner
The Forward, Mar. 27, 2017
Editor’s note: George Steiner is generally regarded as one of the most significant Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. He has taught at Oxford University, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, among others, and his books include the classic of criticism, “Tolstoy Or Dostoevsky,” “The Death Of Tragedy” and “In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards The Redefinition Of Culture.” “A Long Saturday,” a book of conversations Steiner had with the French journalist Laure Adler, is being published this month by the University Of Chicago Press. Writing for The Washington Post in 1984, Robert Alter declared, “No one now writing on literature can match him as polymath and polyglot, and few can equal the verve and eloquence of his writing.”
The following conversation between Adler and Steiner has been excerpted from that book.
Laure Adler: The Jewish question, which has haunted your entire life, goes well beyond the existence of Israel, the settling of a people in a nation-state, doesn’t it?
George Steiner: That’s a crucial question. I have great contempt for armchair Zionists, who practice Zionism without ever wanting to set foot over there. The only time I had the huge privilege of meeting Ben-Gurion (very briefly), he said to me, “Only one thing matters: Send me your children.”
Which you didn’t do.
Which I didn’t do. And I am fundamentally anti-Zionist. Let me explain — even if, as I strongly fear, everything that I’m going to say now may be misunderstood, misinterpreted. For several thousand years, approximately from the time of the fall of the First Temple in Jerusalem, Jews did not have the wherewithal to mistreat, or torture, or expropriate anyone or anything in the world. For me, it was the single greatest aristocracy that ever existed. When I’m introduced to an English duke, I say to myself, “The highest nobility is to have belonged to a people that has never humiliated another people.” Or tortured another. But today, Israel must necessarily (I stress this word, and would repeat it 20 times if I could), necessarily, inevitably, inescapably, kill and torture in order to survive; Israel must behave like the rest of so-called normal humanity.
Well, I’m a confirmed ethical snob, I’m completely arrogant ethically; by becoming a people like others, the Israelis have forfeited that nobility I had attributed to them. Israel is a nation between nations, armed to the teeth. And when I look from the top of a wall at the long line of Palestinian workers trying to get to their daily jobs, standing in blistering heat, I can’t help seeing the humiliation of those human beings in that line, and I say to myself, “It’s too high a price to pay.” To which Israel answers: “Be quiet, you fool! Come here! Live with us! Share our danger! We are the only country that will welcome your children if they have to flee. So what right do you have to be so morally superior?” And I have no response. To be able to respond, I would have to be there, on the street corner, giving my absurd spiel, living the daily risks there. Because I don’t do that, I can only explain what I perceive as the Jew’s mission: to be the guest of humanity. And, even more paradoxical (which places the mark of Cain on my forehead), what convinced me was something Heidegger said: “We are the guests of life.” Heidegger came up with that extraordinary expression; neither you nor I could choose the place of our birth, the circumstances, the historical time to which we belong, a handicap or perfect health. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
FOR FURTHER REFERENCE:
George Steiner and the Death of the Great Cultural Critic: David Herman, New Statesman America, Oct. 23, 2019 — In his 2015 memoir Going Up, the writer Frederic Raphael describes how as a young man he went to visit Somerset Maugham in the south of France. Maugham had recently visited Max Beerbohm and asked: “Do people still read Max?” Raphael realised that Maugham was really asking whether young people still read him.
George Steiner’s Europe: Matthew Boudway, Commonweal, Mar. 7, 2016 –– THE QUESTION “WHITHER EUROPE” has been asked so often that it has become a clichéd subcategory of another cliché, the headline writer’s “Whither X?” A Google search for “Whither Europe?” turns up more than six thousand uses of the phrase.
Why Do They Hate the Jews?: Jeffrey Salkin, Religion News Service, Feb. 4, 2020 — “Why do they hate us so much?” a Jewish teenager asked me. Another kid offered the following answer: “Because they’re jealous of us.” “Whatever for?” another kid retorted. “Because we believe good stuff.” That really happened.
Real Presences: Two Scientists’ Response to George Steiner: Wilson Poon and Tom McLeish, Theology Vol 102 (1999) pp. 169 – 176 — Real Presences is Steiner’s personal manifesto against the deconstruction movement in modern literature (and art and music). It is not a book that many scientists would read, let alone re-read. And yet we have read and re-read the book; it has made us laugh and cry. Why? This essay is a first attempt at articulating the shock of relevance two scientists felt after their encounter with this remarkable book.
This week’s French-language briefing is Avalible: